Germany: Renowned poet's Israel criticism sparks furore

April 14, 2012
Gunter Grass.

Literature Nobel laureate and Germany's most famous living author Gunter Grass labelled Israel a threat to "already fragile world peace" in his poem “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What must be said”).

The work, published by German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung on April 4, accuses "the West" of hypocrisy in relation to the arming of Israel. In publishing the poem, Grass, who regards himself as "irrevocably connected to the country of Israel” has made a big contribution to breaking a long standing German taboo about publicly criticising Israel's warmongering.

Aged 84, Grass says he was motivated to write the poem by Germany supplying Israel with nuclear capable submarines. Israel has three Dolphin-class submarines ― one half-funded and two entirely funded by German taxpayers. Further contracts for supply have been signed.

Condemning the arming of Israel, he wrote: “Because we ― as Germans burdened enough/Could be the suppliers to a crime”

The charge of anti-Semitism, levelled worldwide to silence critics of Israel, has extra punch in modern Germany, living in the shadow of the crimes of the Nazi regime. Grass makes reference to the view that an historical German debt means uncritical support for the Israeli state whatever crimes it commits.

He wrote: “With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares 'A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel'”.

Grass has conceded that he has personally kept silent on Israel's own nuclear program because his country committed "crimes that are without comparison". He has come to see that silence as a "burdensome lie and a coercion" that when disregarded carries a punishment ― "the verdict anti-Semitism”.

Predictably, Grass has been subject to the full weight of that punishment. Israel declared a travel ban and German politicians lined up to condemn him.

The parliamentary manager of the opposition Greens in parliament, Volker Beck, responded: "Grass has shown himself to be ignorant of the actual threat to Israel posed by Iran, the constant attacks ... and the questioning of Israel's right to exist by Iran and its allies in the region.”

Parliamentary members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), of which Grass is a member and long-time high profile campaigner, spent the days after the publication falling over themselves to publicly attack Grass and the views he expressed.

Many critics have been quick to reference Grass's membership of the Waffen-SS during the last months of World War II. Grass disclosed in his 2006 biography that, at 17, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS instead of the regular armed forces. It was common practice at that point of the war.

In a fever pitch bid to deflect the criticism of Israel, interior minister Eli Yishai said Grass could no longer visit Israel because of his "attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and people of Israel, and thus to advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform".

Of politicians, only Wolfgang Gehrcke from the socialist Die Linke party publicly defended Grass. Gehrcke said Grass had the "courage" to express "what is widely kept silent". Last year, amid accusations of anti-Semitism from both inside and outside the party, Die Linke publicly distanced itself from support for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Despite howling criticism from the ranks of the political establishment, Grass has tapped broader concern about the increasingly unchecked belligerence of the Israeli state and German government support.

Many demonstrators taking part in the annual Easter anti-war march used the occasion to show their support for the author. Protesters in Berlin, Stuttgart and other cities shouted slogans like “Gunter Grass, you are right. Thank you!”

What Must be Said

By Günter Grass

Why have I kept silent, silent for too long
over what is openly played out
in war games at the end of which we
the survivors are at best footnotes.

It’s that claim of a right to first strike
against those who under a loudmouth’s thumb
are pushed into organized cheering—
a strike to snuff out the Iranian people
on suspicion that under his influence
an atom bomb’s being built.

But why do I forbid myself
to name that other land in which
for years—although kept secret—
a usable nuclear capability has grown
beyond all control, because
no scrutiny is allowed.

The universal silence around this fact,
under which my own silence lay,
I feel now as a heavy lie,
a strong constraint, which to dismiss
courts forceful punishment:
the verdict of “Antisemitism” is well known.

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.

Why is it only now I say,
in old age, with my last drop of ink,
that Israel’s nuclear power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what by tomorrow might be
too late, must be spoken now,
and because we—as Germans, already
burdened enough—could become
enablers of a crime, foreseeable and therefore
not to be eradicated
with any of the usual excuses.

And admittedly: I’m silent no more
because I’ve had it with the West’s hypocrisy
—and one can hope that many others too
may free themselves from silence,
challenge the instigator of known danger
to abstain from violence,
and at the same time demand
a permanent and unrestrained control
of Israel’s atomic power
and Iranian nuclear plants
by an international authority
accepted by both governments.

Only thus can one give help
to Israelis and Palestinians—still more,
all the peoples, neighbour-enemies
living in this region occupied by madness
—and finally, to ourselves as well.

Translation by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz, reprinted from Pulse Media.


Your heading is so very wrong. Grass writes poems but his status is based on his novels like THE TIN DRUM and others. He has also been a dedicated social democrat and anti communist-- although he is one of the great novelists of the post World War period... anywhere. But calling him a " renowned poet" shows gross ignorance on GLW's part. He was , once upon a time, also a speech writer for Willy Brandt. Grass's skill is that he articulated the liberal edge of the German post war reconstruction and explored some of its angst,. hesitancies and contradictions.Although no radical, he was always courageous in what he bluntly said. Nonetheless he articulates the swan song of social democracy. On this Israel thing: good on him! dave riley

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